Galatians – Introduction

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The WELS Mission for the Visually Impaired presents The Peoples Bible – Galatians by Armin J. Panning, published by Northwestern Publishing House, Copyright 1997



The opening paragraph of this little letter informs us that it is being sent “to the churches in Galatia.” That sounds simple enough, but just where were those churches located? Actually, a surprising amount of discussion has centered on that question.

Fortunately, a definite answer to that question is not absolutely essential for understanding the letter. The Holy Spirit has given us a letter here that stands by itself and remains useful for all ages and situations, for it answers the most basic of all questions: How can the sinner be put right with God?

While identifying the recipients of this letter is not absolutely essential, the assumptions we make about where the Galatians lived will influence our interpretation at various points. It is necessary, therefore, briefly to address this matter.

Regarding the general locale of Galatia, there is no doubt. Galatia was located in the central part of Asia Minor, that is, in the heart of modern Turkey. Differences of opinion arise when one tries to become more specific than that. The Galatian people, immigrants from Gaul (ancient France), lived in the northern part of central Turkey. “Galatia” could refer to the territory where these “Galatian” people lived. Or it could refer to the province the Romans named Galatia, a considerably larger area that extended much farther south. Because of the difference between these geographical areas, Paul could hardly have had both in mind.

The view of this writer is that Paul was addressing congregations in the southern area, in the Roman province. To be specific, these would be the congregations in and around Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. This is precisely the area of activity described in some detail by Luke in Acts chapters 13 and 14, in which he tells us of Paul’s first missionary journey.


Interestingly enough, where the recipients of Paul’s letter lived has a direct bearing on when he would have written to them.

If the letter was written to congregations in northern Galatia, we would have to use a later date. From what we can learn in Acts, Paul did not travel to any northern areas of Asia Minor until his second and third missionary journeys, and pertinent passages (16:6; 18:23) talk only of Paul passing through the area, with no reference to his founding congregations there. But assuming for the moment that he did establish congregations there, any letter to them would have to have been written later than the second or third missionary journeys. Add to this the fact that some of Paul’s statements in the letter to the Galatians (for example, 4:13) make it fair to assume that he had visited Galatia at least twice before writing his letter.

Our view that Paul was writing to cities in southern Galatia implies an earlier date and results in the following scenario. Paul had visited the cities in southern Galatia on his first missionary journey (about A.D. 50). Then, on his second missionary journey (A.D. 51–53), after the Council of Jerusalem, which is described in Acts chapter 15, he again traversed this southern territory, distributing the decisions of the council (Acts 16:4).

From this Galatian territory Paul then continued on his second missionary journey, which took him to Macedonia and Greece. It would seem that not too long after his departure from Galatia, trouble arose in those congregations, for Paul is “astonished” that they are “so quickly deserting” their former position (1:6). All this argues for the assumption that the book of Galatians may well have been written during the latter half of Paul’s second missionary journey.

The time can perhaps be pinpointed even a bit closer. From the fact that the letter contains no greeting from Timothy or Silas, key figures in the work among the Galatians and hence well-known to those congregations, the letter may date to that period of Paul’s work in Corinth before these coworkers had rejoined him (Acts 18:1-5). If the letter can be traced to the time of Paul’s work in Corinth, that would date it about the year A.D. 52 and make Galatians the first epistle Paul wrote.

Occasion for writing

We have assumed that soon after Paul left Galatia a problem developed there that required his immediate attention. Apparently distance and the press of other duties (for example, starting a new mission in Corinth) prevented Paul from going to Galatia to attend to the matter in person. Hence he wrote them a letter, our epistle to the Galatians.

The content of that letter and particularly the tone in which it was written give us an indication of the urgency of the situation. Paul viewed the problem as nothing less than a frontal attack on the Galatians’ faith and life. A substitute gospel—actually “no gospel at all” (1:7)—was being urged on his Galatians. If they accepted it, they would shipwreck their faith. It was a life-and-death matter that required an urgent and immediate letter.

But what was the source and nature of this attack on Paul’s beloved Galatians? Actually, the attack came from a rather familiar source: Jewish opposition.

Recall Paul’s pattern of doing mission work as it is described for us in Acts. Paul regularly aimed his efforts toward urban population centers. (This, incidentally, is another argument favoring a southern location for the Galatians. There were virtually no cities in the north.) In the populous urban areas, Paul sought out Jewish synagogues where the Old Testament Law and the Prophets were regularly read and studied.

Paul’s message to these synagogue worshipers was very basic. He told them: “The Savior promised in the whole Old Testament has come. It’s Jesus of Nazareth. He lived a perfect life and died an innocent death on the cross for the sins of all people.”

It was a disarmingly simple plan of salvation that Paul presented. He urged them: “Repent of your sins. Turn in faith to this Jesus of Nazareth. Accept his forgiveness and you can be sure that you are God’s children and heirs of eternal salvation.”

The initial reaction in the synagogues was joyful acceptance of so gracious a message. But inevitably some had second thoughts. They began to wonder: “With salvation as a free gift, what happens to the regulations Moses gave us in the Old Testament? What about kosher foods, keeping a quiet Sabbath, circumcising sons on the eighth day? Are all these things suddenly of no value?”

It was a perceptive question they asked—and one that required a straightforward answer from Paul. He had to tell them that, as far as salvation was concerned, none of the ceremonies and Mosaic practices could bring them closer to God. If they wanted to observe their ancestral customs, they might do so by choice, but these customs were not to be required for salvation. Salvation was purely a gift from God.

That, of course, sounded like heresy to many with a synagogue-trained ear, and they reacted violently to Paul’s teaching of salvation purely by grace. Invariably, Paul was driven from the synagogue by such conservative Jewish opposition.

But Paul’s exit from the synagogue did not mean the end of the Christian message. A minority of the synagogue worshipers accepted the message of salvation by grace alone and opened their homes as centers for the teaching of this liberating and life-giving gospel. When Paul moved on to other cities, these believers from the synagogue, who were thoroughly trained in God’s Word, became the leaders of fledgling “house churches” that soon grew into thriving Christian congregations. Growth in numbers came largely from gentile converts who joined these congregations. The teaching and leadership positions, however, continued to be filled by the capable Jewish nucleus that had originally come from the synagogue.

In all this we see a reminder of what Jesus told the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well: “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). To a predominantly gentile Galatia, Paul, a Jew, had proclaimed the message of a Jewish Jesus, and this message continued to be taught under the leadership of Jewish converts from the local synagogues. The Christian message brought to the Galatians was truly “from the Jews.”

Recognizing that the Galatians depended very heavily upon Jewish leadership will help toward understanding how the Galatians could be confused. Other Jewish teachers (perhaps from so prestigious a place as Jerusalem) had come to Galatia and challenged the local leaders regarding salvation purely by grace without keeping any of the Jewish customs and ceremonies.

Add to this the fact that these newly arrived teachers claimed to be Christian themselves. They did not deny the perfect life of Christ or his innocent death on the cross. Rather, they asserted that the way to receive the benefits of this Christ was through the time-honored method of joining God’s covenant people, that is, by becoming “proselytes,” converts to Judaism. Thus they urged the Galatians to believe in Christ and keep the Old Testament ceremonies.

That people would teach such a hybrid religion is not a product of our imaginations. Scripture clearly describes such teachers. For example, these teachers made trouble for the Christians in Antioch of Syria by insisting that “unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). And when a council was called in Jerusalem to settle this matter, they again showed their true colors. Luke then tells us, “Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses’” (verse 5).

Note that the troublemakers in Jerusalem are called believers in the sense that they wanted to align themselves with the Christians and claimed to believe in Christ. But they said some very unchristian things when they insisted that if people were to be saved, they had to be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses. That was a total denial of salvation by grace and really made Christ’s work of no effect.

Teachers advocating acceptance of Christ on Jewish conditions are often referred to as Judaizers. Examining Paul’s letter to the Galatians leaves little doubt that such Judaizers had broken into the Galatian congregations and thoroughly upset the simple Christian faith of the gentile believers. This, then, was the occasion of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.


Flaunting their supposed greater insight, these newly arrived Jewish teachers confronted the gentile believers with a host of persuasive arguments. If we look at Paul’s rebuttal, three main erroneous arguments seemed to be at the heart of the Judaizers’ teaching:

First argument.
You can’t trust Paul’s “gospel.” This is their logic: “How do you know that what Paul says about salvation by faith without any works is true when he himself is a ‘nobody’? He wasn’t a disciple or one of the Twelve whom Christ sent out. If the man is unknown, how can you trust his message?”

Second argument.
The Law of Moses is God’s time-tested plan. In contrast to Paul’s “innovations,” the Judaizers pointed to antiquity: “Look how long the Mosaic Law has been around! That is God’s plan, his ‘constitution,’ on which he set up a people who have been uniquely his since the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. Isn’t it much safer to join that nation by accepting its constitution and laws and thus make yourselves members of God’s people and heirs of his salvation?”

Third argument
Sinners need the law! The Judaizers based their third argument on human nature: “People need guidance and direction. They will never respect God or treat their neighbor decently unless they have some pattern or standard to follow. And that pattern is there for you, tailor-made in the Mosaic Law.”

Paul’s letter to the Galatians addresses itself with remarkable vigor directly to those three points. It’s a short letter, but powerful beyond its size. Its six chapters divide into a simple, three-part outline of two chapters each. In the first two chapters Paul takes up the matter of his being a “nobody” whose message must necessarily be unreliable. In the third and fourth chapters he explains the true nature and character of the Mosaic Law in which the Judaizers were putting so much trust. In the last two chapters he shows that this law is not the real source and motivation for proper life and conduct.

As a preview of the specific arguments Paul will be using, let’s elaborate on his three main points.

Chapters 1 and 2: Paul indicates the source of his gospel message, hence its reliability. Paul grants that he is not one of the Twelve, but that does not make his message unreliable. His message comes as much from Christ as that of the Twelve, for Paul was granted the unique experience of being confronted personally on the road to Damascus by the risen and ascended Christ. Christ called and commissioned him. Accordingly, Paul’s message did not come from any human source or authority. It came from Christ himself.

Even though his message was not learned or derived from the Twelve, it was recognized and accepted by the Twelve. At the Council of Jerusalem they not only agreed with Paul’s message, but they trusted him so much that they agreed to divide the mission field with him. The Twelve would continue to go to the Jews; Paul was to preach to the Gentiles. But the same gospel message would be preached to all, namely, salvation by faith in Christ without the requirement of keeping the Mosaic Law and ceremonies.

Chapters 3 and 4: Paul explains the timeless nature of the gospel, hence its superiority over the Mosaic Law, which came later and was only temporary.

After asking the Gentiles to recall how they first obtained their hope of salvation, Paul turns to the more objective example of Abraham. How was he saved? Why, he “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (3:6). He was saved by faith—and that before the Mosaic Law was ever given on Mount Sinai. Hence the Mosaic Law is obviously not the essence of God’s plan of salvation.

The Law was added a full four hundred years after the gospel promise had been given to Abraham. And even then the Mosaic Law was only temporary. It was limited to the Jewish nation, and even in their case, it was applicable only until the coming of Christ. Hence no one should now be required to keep the law for salvation. The believer in Christ is saved by faith alone without the observance of any law or ceremony. Such a person is free indeed.

Chapters 5 and 6: The gospel works true love for God and moves believers to do good works; hence the law is not necessary for motivating proper conduct in believers.

Faith in Christ not only frees believers from something (the demands of the law). It also frees them for something (a life of cheerful service to God and neighbor).

It is this freedom Paul extols in the closing chapters of his letter. He sets the tone for this section in the opening verse of the fifth chapter, where he declares, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” And he adds at once the admonition that dominates the letter: “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

To those who misconstrue liberty from the law as a license to do whatever they please, Paul says, “Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (5:16). Faith working by love will not result in unrestrained license. Rather, the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, and so on—will abound and flourish in a way the law could never produce. What folly, therefore, to return once more to subjection under the law and thus accept as master the “weak and miserable principles” (4:9) incapable of producing any good or blessing!

Continuing significance of the letter

In our day we are not plagued by Judaizers urging us to be good Christians by keeping the Law of Moses and by observing Old Testament ceremonies, such as circumcision and kosher diets. And yet the same sort of pressure is brought to bear on all of us. Instinctively we feel an urgency to do something to get right with God. Burdened with a load of sin and guilt, we’re susceptible to the
thought, “I’ll have to do something to make things right with God.” That makes sense to us.

In fact, the thought makes so much sense that at times it has been able to dominate and becloud the message of the Christian church. In medieval times the church began to proclaim a plan of salvation that in reality depended on human merit. Penance, good works,and merit earned by sacrificing the mass were coupled with the merit of Christ in such a way that heaven ultimately became a reward for properly observing church patterns and rituals.

It is not just a coincidence that Luther considered Galatians his favorite epistle. He was so attached to it that he could declare himself “betrothed” to this little epistle, that it was, in fact, his “Katherine von Bora.”

Luther felt, and rightly so, that he was fighting the same battle with Rome that Paul had waged with the Judaizers. In both cases the answer to the false teachers had to be exactly the same: Salvation is not the result of Christ’s merit and human effort working in combination. Salvation is purely the gift of God, by grace alone, through faith alone in Jesus Christ, without any works on man’s part.

Heirs of the Reformation are not immune to the seductive thought that they should give some place to merit. Time and again the thought comes to us: “To be saved I’ll have to become a better person. I dare not be as bad as others.” That is assigning human merit an improper place in our thinking.

To fight against such thoughts, we need again and again to return to Scripture’s truth that the just shall live by faith. Nowhere is that truth set forth more clearly than in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. We too would do well to “betroth” ourselves to this little letter.

I. Greeting (1:1-5)
II. Introduction to the letter (1:6-10)
III. Paul defends his apostleship (1:11–2:21)
A. Paul was called directly by Christ (1:11-24)
1.Paul’s life before his conversion (1:11-14)
2.Circumstances surrounding Paul’s conversion (1:15-17)

3.Paul’s visit to Jerusalem three years after conversion (1:18-20)

4.Paul’s stay in Syria and Cilicia (1:21-24)

B. Paul was received by the other apostles (2:1-21)

1.Paul’s gospel was recognized at the Jerusalem Council (2:1-5)

2.An area of gospel work was accorded to Paul (2:6-10)

3.Peter accepts Paul’s admonition (2:11-21)

IV. Paul explains justification—how the sinner becomes accepted before God (3:1–4:31)

A. Not by works but by faith alone (3:1-18)

1.The Galatians’ own experience (3:1-5)

2.Abraham’s case (3:6-9)

3.The difference between law and gospel (3:10-14)

4.The promise given already to Abraham (3:15-18)

B.Christians are free from the law (3:19–4:31)

1.A description of the law (3:19-29)

2.The parable of the minor heir, an illustration from everyday life (4:1-11)

3.Free from the law: the example of the Galatians’ own conversion (4:12-20)

4.The example of Ishmael and Isaac(an allegory) (4:21-31)

V. Paul explains sanctification—how the justified sinner is to live before God (5:1–6:10)

A. Encouragements that flow from the doctrine of justification (5:1–6:5)

1.Stand firm in your Christian liberty (5:1-12)

2.Walk in the spirit, not in the flesh (5:13-25)

3.Be considerate of the weak and erring (5:26–6:5)

B.General admonitions (6:6-10)

1.Encouragement to support messengers of the gospel (6:6-9)

2.Encouragement to do good to all, especially to believers (6:10)

VI. Conclusion (6:11-18)

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